04 July, 2006

Poverty: The Unmentionable In U.S. Politics

As we celebrate Independence Day it is a good time to reflect on where our country is and where it is going. I thought about doing something on the war, or the environment, alternative energy, immigration or the great political divide. But these issues are with us on a daily basis and will no doubt be written about on this blog time and time again.

Then I saw a quote from Al Sharpton on the Politicker . It was about poverty. And Sharpton's point is well taken. No one's talking about it. And certainly not the presidential contenders for the "party of the people."

Here's what Sharpton had to say, according to the Politicker, at a private event last week:

"If you listen to all the names that are out there now- Warner, Hillary, all of them - what are their programs on poverty? What are they saying about poverty? It is almost unthinkable that you would have an opposition party that has no plan to deal with poverty and [is]not even talking about it."

(In fairness to John Edwards, he is the one national politician focusing on the plight of the poor).

When you think poverty, you think big cities. Which is why I chose to focus on the relatively well-to-do Rockland County to make my point. Poverty is with us and getting worse. Here's a piece I wrote for another purpose. It's something for you to think about today as you participate in your backyard cookout. Please pass the mustard ...and anything else you can spare for those in need!


More than twice as many Rockland County families with children are living in poverty well into President Bush's two-term presidency than were below the government's official poverty level in 2000, the year before Bush took office.

According to the latest figures available from the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Rockland families living in poverty jumped to 8.8% of all families in the county in 2004, from 4.5% in 2000, the last year of the Bill Clinton administration.

The poverty rate among families with children under 18 more than doubled, to 14.8% in 2004 from 6.7% in 2000. The rate among individual Rockland residents rose to 11.6% from 6.7%
during that time frame.

The 2004 figures are the latest available from the Census Bureau.

The numbers are not a surprise to Dolores Treger, Executive Director of Help From People to People Inc., a Rockland County charity that provided food, clothing, and emergency assistance with rent and utility bills to more than 20-thousand persons in 2005, according to the charity's annual report.

Treger says she has seen the level of need spike in Rockland County in recent years.

"When we started the charity 16 years ago we used to be able to supplement other charity groups with extra supplies," she said in an interview at the organization's Nanuet facility. "We haven't been able to do that in years."

Treger says her clientele has also changed over the years. In its earliest days, People to People, as it is more commonly known, supplied about 30 families, all on welfare, Treger said. Now, she estimates, 95%of those seeking help are the working poor.

Treger says three factors are to blame as the need for assistance remains strong this year - the influx of immigrants into the county (many of whom are working two or three jobs according to Treger), the county's "extremely high" cost of living and rising gas prices.

The poverty numbers for Rockland are particularly noteworthy in a county where the median family income, according to census department figures, was more than $86,000 in 2004 and the median price of a single-family home was $494,000 in April of this year, according to the New York State Association of Realtors.

Treger says in a way, the rate of affluence in the county makes those in poverty harder to notice. She says many of the county's residents are oblivious to the need around them.

"Some don't want to know and some don't believe it, but those who do know are very, very generous."

In the 1990s, according to the Census Bureau, Rockland's poverty rate was little changed. At the beginning of the decade, four percent of all Rockland families were living below the government's official poverty level, one-half of one percentage point below the 4.5 rate in 2000.

As Treger surveys People to People's shelves, some nearly full and others -- especially those reserved for baby food and diapers -- nearly empty, she laments the shift of emphasis during the Bush years to private charities from direct government support of the poor. "These agencies and churches carry an enormous load, taking on the load the government could or should have taken on, and it's quite a struggle."

By Ron Vallo

The U.S. poverty level for a
family of four (two children):

2000 - $17,463

2004 - $18,850

2006 - $20,000


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